Tuitama shines in crunch time for the Wildcats

SEATTLE — As well as University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker played on Saturday, with season bests of 336 passing yards and 157 rushing yards to go with four passing/rushing touchdowns, his Arizona counterpart was equally productive.

And Arizona’s Willie Tuitama was able to walk off the field smiling, after guiding the Wildcats to a remarkable 48-41 comeback victory at Husky Stadium.

Tuitama, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior, was virtually unstoppable through the air. Arizona managed just 25 rushing yards and yet still totaled 535 yards of offense, with 510 coming via Tuitama’s talented right arm. He was 38-for-51 with five touchdowns and really just one mistake — a third-quarter pass intended for wide receiver Anthony Johnson on a crossing route that sailed high and was intercepted by UW safety Mesphin Forrester.

Trailing 41-26 early in the fourth period, Tuitama led the Wildcats on three successive touchdown drives of 46, 30 and 80 yards. On those decisive marches, he was 13-for-14 through the air for 140 yards and three touchdowns.

“The kid’s been through a lot,” Arizona head coach Mike Stoops said. “But we’ve hung in there and Willie’s worked hard. He has a lot of talent and he keeps getting better.

“There’s a lot that gets put on a quarterback’s shoulders at any level of football, especially this one. Willie’s handled it well. I’m proud of him. To throw for 500 (plus yards) and five touchdowns, that’s a great individual performance.”

Tuitama’s passing total was the most in history by an Arizona quarterback and also the most in history by a UW opposing QB.

As much as Washington has struggled this season — after winning their first two games, the Huskies have lost six in a row — Arizona has experienced its own problems. The Wildcats arrived in Seattle with a 2-6 record and had lost four Pacific-10 Conference games, including three in a row before facing the Huskies.

“Our kids have never really not fought through hard times,” Stoops said. “And God knows we’ve been through enough.”

Davenport benched: Washington cornerback Byron Davenport was beat deep twice on consecutive plays early in the game, and the second time was enough to earn him a spot on the bench for the rest of the game.

Midway through the first quarter, Tuitama sent wide receiver Mike Thomas — the Pac-10’s pass reception leader coming into the game with 53 in eight games — deep on a post route. Thomas went flying by Davenport and the pass caught him in full stride, except he dropped it.

On the very next play, Thomas went streaking up the right sideline, again scooting right past Davenport, and this time he held onto another perfect strike. The result was a 66-yard touchdown for a 7-0 Arizona lead. Davenport watched the rest of the game from the sidelines.

Asked about Davenport after the game, UW defensive coordinator Kent Baer said: “I don’t know, you’d have to ask him.”

Did he take himself out of the game? “No, we did,” Baer said.

Calling on the kids: For much of Saturday’s game, Washington had three true freshmen on the field defensively. Linebacker Mason Foster started for E.J. Savannah (undisclosed disciplinary infraction) and got additional minutes because Savannah has been battling a neck stinger. Cornerback Vonzell McDowell got more playing time after Davenport was benched. Safety Nate Williams has been getting increased playing time lately, in part because of an injury to Jason Wells (sprained ankle).

Also, linebacker Joshua Gage, a junior walk-on, got minutes with the defense and on special teams.

“Every one of those kids is going to be a really good player,” Baer said. “You know, you’d like to be more veteran (as a unit). I would, but I’m not going to use that as an excuse. They’re young and they don’t know a lot right now. And there’s a lot being thrown at them.”

Of Foster, Baer said, “I thought for the most part he played pretty good. He’s very athletic and he’s going to be a really good linebacker.”

Stevens steps up: In the space of three second-quarter plays, UW backup linebacker Chris Stevens had two dandy highlights.

On a second-and-10 Arizona play from the Wildcats 36-yard line, Stevens broke through to sack Tuitama for a 7-yard loss. That was a big play because Arizona gained 15 yards on third down but still came up 2 yards short of a first down.

So the Wildcats lined up to punt on fourth down, and when punter Keenyn Crier bobbled the snap and was crushed by the UW rush, the ball squirted free on the field.

Stevens picked up the fumble and dashed 30 yards for a touchdown, the second of his UW career. He blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown against Washington State last season.

Saturday’s TD “would be my special teams highlight right now,” he said. “You can’t beat a touchdown.”

Where is everybody?: The crowd of 61,124 was the smallest at Husky Stadium this season.

Block party: Jordan Reffett’s blocked extra point Saturday gave him three blocked kicks this season. The senior defensive tackle also has two blocked field goals this year.

Lineup changes: Cody Habben started Saturday in place of Ben Ossai at left tackle, while Jordan White-Frisbee got the nod at right guard over Casey Bulyca. Both moves were made for disciplinary reasons, said Tyrone Willingham.

Rare Rankin fumble: Louis Rankin’s first-quarter fumble was his first of the season. The play was reviewed and call was upheld. Rankin said he heard a whistle before the ball came loose.

“I heard them blow the whistle, so I thought play was over with,” he said.

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